Carnival Fathom Gets U.S. Approval For Travel To Cuba

Cruise Week

Carnival Corp. has been granted U.S. approval for travel to Cuba for the purpose of providing “cultural, artistic, faith-based and humanitarian exchanges between American and Cuban citizens," the company says.

Carnival says its new fathom brand will begin regularly scheduled, full week sailings to Cuba beginning in May 2016. These will apparently rotate with the previously announced full week sailings fathom will operate from Miami to the Dominican Republic starting next April.

It's not quite a done deal yet. The U.S. Department of the Treasury and the U.S. Department of Commerce granted approval to begin travel to Cuba in less than a year, but Carnival Corp. is still awaiting approval from Cuba itself.

But given the fact that the announcement about fathom has already been made, one gets the sense that Cuban approval is expected. The company says it is in active discussions and plans to work with the appropriate authorities in Cuba so that approval is granted.

“We look forward to working with the Cuban authorities for their approval to help make the social, cultural and humanitarian exchanges between U.S. citizens and the people of Cuba a reality," said Carnival CEO Arnold Donald.

The news comes on the heels of the Obama administration's announcement of the opening of embassies in Havana and Washington. The Cuban embassy is due to open in Washington D.C. 20JUL, the day the 2 countries officially reopen diplomatic relations.

At this point, fathom is the only Carnival Corp. brand that would appear to qualify for cruise travel to Cuba carrying U.S. citizens. While the Obama administration has lifted some restrictions on travel, removing the economic embargo requires approval from Congress.

Until that happens, and it's unlikely such a change will occur in the near future, European-owned companies have in essence a competitive edge because they don't have the same travel restrictions. Hence, Italian-owned MSC announced this week that it will homeport the 2,120 pax MSC Opera in Havana beginning this winter.

The 16 sailings on MSC Opera, which open for sale 09JUL in the U.K., give an idea of what U.S. customers might expect to see if regular cruises open up to the U.S. market down the line. The Opera itinerary spends 2½ days in Havana while also calling in the Cayman Islands, Jamaica and Mexico.

Like fathom, MSC is announcing a full slate of sailings on unusually short notice, undoubtedly because it's anticipated that interest in cruises homeported in Havana will be unusually high. Also, it replaces an itinerary - Canary Islands, Madeira, Morocco - to a part of the world that is not of high interest right now given international affairs.

Even prior to Carnival Corp's latest announcement involving Cuba, Michelle Fee, President & CEO of Cruise Planners, was among those on the retail side of the business seeing strong potential in fathom. “It will be interesting to see what type of customer base they will draw," said Fee in an interview conducted before today's announcement. “What's cool about fathom is people love to give back. And so you feel like you get to go out and you get to make a difference in somebody's lives. But at the end of the day you're coming back to a ship and taking a nice, hot shower and putting on your fluffy robe. You're going to go downstairs, to eat, drink, see a show and have a good time. And then the next day you can do good again."

Even without Cuba in the picture, Fee was among those saying there is a market for the fathom product: “I think there is a market for new to cruise, and even for well-travelled customers."

And of course, Cuba can only help. “We all know that Cuba is going to be a hot destination once the borders open, so if fathom is one of the 1st ships to sail there, it could be an overnight success," said Fee.

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